If I may begin on a personal note: I’m a veritable Little Mary Sunshine, all-star division.
Show me a half-empty glass and I’ll swear it’s half-full. Show me an empty glass and I’ll show you how to fill it up halfway, never half-empty. Give me a lemon and it’ll start raining lemonade from a cloudless sky. I’ll take that frown and turn it upside down, no matter where it came from. Furthermore, I can take tomorrow, dip it in a dream, separate the sorrow, and collect up all the cream. I’m a ton of fun at parties.
My sunny nature extends even into literary matters. (I do not consider quoting lyrics from “The Candy Man” a literary matter.) Pangloss, the irrepressible optimist from Voltaire’s Candide, insisted that this present world is the best of all possible worlds. Our storytellers – highbrow and otherwise – have tried to underscore the point by creating much-less-pleasant worlds of their own… an entire grisly genre we call “dystopian fiction.”
Dystopian novels, along with movies and short stories, present a grave challenge to followers of Pangloss. But they also prove, if approached aright, that even they can be mined for the silver lining (mixed metaphors have their upsides, too).
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But that’s the key: They must be approached aright. That means we adopt an insanely upbeat attitude that disavows negativity, downgrades disturbing reality, and elevates positivity to a ridiculous degree wherever it can be found. As it happens, this is also the proper attitude one should take to a world of catastrophic debt, crumbling social cohesion, racial strife, declining morality, ethnic resentments, overweening government, cultural commissars, speech codes, ubiquitous surveillance, ridiculous art… in short, a world very much like our own.
But it requires practice! As examples, I have taken a trio of our most intractable fictional dystopias and given them my own Panglossian… um, gloss. Consider this a kind of guide for the perplexed. To wit:
Orwell’s novel and its mega-state, Oceania, are commonly considered the wellspring of fictional dystopias, though many excellent dystopias had been postulated before his. (The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells, is probably the most obvious and enduring precursor.) Orwell himself took inspiration, if that’s the word, from We, an early satire of the Soviet system. In We, all people are identified by numbers, which means – looking on the bright side – you never have to worry about forgetting someone’s name. (See how easy this is?)
In Orwell’s Oceania, there is no cumbersome system in which an individual will have two or sometimes, horribly, three names for us to remember. In Oceania, many people are referred to by a single name only. (The trend in our day toward single names for entertainers, from Liberace to Beyoncé, is a development we must encourage. Our aging Boomers increasingly have difficulty remembering their own names, much less the name of the woman who was married to Sonny Whathisname and sang… you know the song I mean… “Gypsies, Tramps, and… Somethings.”)
Beyond that simplified nomenclature, even I might strain to find a kind word to say about Oceania. It is, after all, a society in which the government is explicitly committed to wiping out the orgasm, although anyone who’s leafed through the sex-ed materials used in our public schools may wonder whether our own government isn’t trying to do the same thing.
But don those rose-tinted glasses and look closer: A brief trip through Oceania would turn up more than a few amenities to love. The ubiquitous and outsized television screens that appear in every public and private space are annoying, yes, but not nearly as much as the smartphone.
The telescreen renders social media impossible, and that includes Twitter, Snapchat, and a dozen other platforms that have more destructive effects on social life in a single day than a week’s worth of scowls from Big Brother’s unavoidable puss. (Also, no more Trump tweets!) Plus, you have no temptation to carry such a large screen with you. If your son cracks up the family Tahoe, he can’t call you while you’re out trying to enjoy a nice quiet drink with your one-named friends.
Which reminds me: In 1984, everyone drinks Victory gin and is encouraged to do so… morning, noon, and night. When was the last time the feds recommended topping off breakfast with a good stiff snort?
Ditto smoking: In Oceania, you can smoke anywhere, at any time, and the government even tries to keep citizens’ spirits up by announcing that cigarette production will increase next quarter. That’s economics for the people.
As a writer, even one as optimistic as me (“Now there’s something you don’t see every day, Chauncey…”), I struggle to find the silver lining in the unnamed city of Ray Bradbury’s dystopic imagination.
The temperature of the title, of course, refers to the point at which paper catches fire. Writers tend to frown on book-burning, which seems to be the novel’s primary activity and the defining function of its government.
But what did I say about frowns? I can turn even this one upside down if I think of Bradbury’s dystopia not as a writer, but as a reader.
Let us stipulate that, like Bradbury’s hero Guy Montag, you can sock away copies of civilization’s great books and your own favorites beyond the reach of government firebugs. That leaves every bad book you can think of…
A huge, towering conflagration fed by the collected works of Dan Brown, every manifesto ever written by a presidential candidate, show-biz memoirs, Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States… Just think of it.
Fifty Shades of Gray turns to ash, Judith Krantz melts away like a bad facelift, The Greening of America glows orange. A Bonfire of Balderdash! The fire will never gutter and go out. In the glow, you might catch a fleeting smile cross the face of even the most ardent Utopian.
Yes, Huxley’s dystopia, here called “World State,” is full of nightmares. We reel in horror at the genetically modified humans hatched from artificial wombs, the operant conditioning in place of education, the destruction of family life and romantic love. Where in this manipulative hell could any silver lining be found?
One word: soma.
It’s even better than Victory gin. And it has fewer calories.
Andrew Ferguson is the author of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course on Getting His Kid Into College. He is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush and was one of the founding editors of The Weekly Standard.